WASHINGTON (CN) — Taking a large property-management company and its affiliates to court, a civil rights group claims that they racially discriminate by refusing to rent apartments to people with housing choice vouchers.
Employees of the Lenkin Co., which runs four apartment buildings in Northwest Washington, told people posing as potential tenants that the company does not accept housing choice vouchers, the Equal Rights Center said in its lengthy complaint, filed on April 13 in D.C. Superior Court.
“By their acts, policies and practices, defendants refuse to rent to individuals who intend to use housing choice vouchers at any properties they own or manage,” the complaint states. “In so doing, defendants unlawfully discriminate against renters in the District of Columbia based on their source of income.”
Housing choice vouchers are a federal subsidy given to low-income families to help them live in neighborhoods other than those of rampant poverty. In Washington this means helping families move from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where 70 percent of housing choice voucher holders live.
To help grease such movement, District of Columbia law prohibits companies from discriminating against potential tenants based on their source of income, and specifies housing choice vouchers as a protected income source, according to the complaint.
The racial breakdown of housing choice voucher holders is stark, with 92 percent being African American in Washington. Only 117 families who have housing choice vouchers in Washington are white, according to the complaint.
The Lenkin Company’s apartment buildings are in Northwest Washington, a predominantly wealthy, white area that is exactly the type of place the vouchers were meant to open up to lower-income families. All eight defendants operate out of the same address in Bethesda, Maryland; six of them have Lenkin in their name.
But when testers for the Equal Rights Center posed as potential tenants and made nine calls to the Lenkin Company asking about apartments for rent and whether the company accepted housing choice vouchers, they claim to have met a cold reception.
On six calls, Lenkin employees told the testers that they did not accept housing choice vouchers, according to the complaint. Two other calls went to voicemail, and a Lenkin employee told the ninth tester that no one-bedroom apartments were available, according to the complaint.
“To the ERC’s knowledge, defendants have no justification for their policy or practice of refusing access to Housing Choice Voucher holders or for their statements expressing such policy or practice,” the complaint states. “Defendants’ policy or practice is not necessary to achieve any legitimate, nondiscriminatory interest. Even if defendants could claim such an interest, that interest could be served by another policy or practice with less discriminatory effect.”
The Equal Rights Center claims Lenkin’s refusal to lease to people with housing choice vouchers harms it because it has to spend money on outreach and education efforts as well as on enforcement actions.
Though the complaint says Lenkin has been fighting housing discrimination claims from voucher holders since 2003, Lenkin disputes this representation.
“We take this matter very seriously, and are investigating the allegations in the complaint,” Lenkin Company President Edward Lenkin said in a statement. “The allegations do not reflect who we are as a company, and in fact are contrary to our regular fair housing training. The allegations are not the way we’ve always conducted our business. As a company we do not tolerate discrimination.”
The Equal Rights Center seeks injunctive relief, an order forcing the Lenkin Company to accept housing choice voucher holders and damages to be determined at trial.
“Through this lawsuit the ERC hopes to make Lenkin properties available to voucher holders in the future and make good on the promise that housing opportunity should be equal for all renters in the District,” Equal Rights Center executive director Melvina Ford said in a statement. “We will continue to combat these kinds of discriminatory practices, particularly where such refusals to rent have an adverse effect on and seek to exclude African-American renters who rely on vouchers to pay for the rent.”
The group is represented by Jonathan Smith with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.